Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Light in Our Darkness

Blessed Sara Salkahazi and Companion 

Today is the feast of St. John the Evangelist (also known as St.John the Theologian in the Christian East), one of the "Comites Christi" or 'companions of Christ' who are commemorated during the Octave of Christmas.

On this day we also remember a 20th century companion of Christ, Blessed Sara Salkahazi, who on this day in 1944 was martyred on the banks of the Danube River in Budapest alongside the Jewish women that she and members of her order, the Sisters of Social Service had given refuge.

Blessed Sara and others, such as Raoul Wallenberg and the founder of the Sisters of Social Service, Sr. Margit Slachta http://db.yadvashem.org/righteous/family.html?language=en&itemId=4044386 were truly light in the darkness of that terrible winter when the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators of the Arrow Cross, attempted to round up and execute the surviving  Jews of Budapest.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, the names of the Jewish companions of Blessed Sara are not known. In this relief print which I made last year at this time as part of a series of saints for the Year of Mercy, I chose to depict her with one of the women with whom she died.

In 2005 the Hungarian sculptors Gyula Pauer and Can Togay created a moving memorial to all those who were executed on the embankment of the Danube.  They cast in iron some fifty pairs of shoes from the period and installed them, the various shoes of all styles and sizes representing the women, men and children put to death there.  The installation has become a place of remembrance and reflection.

You can also read more about Blessed Sara here:

Monday, December 26, 2016

Take Away My Heart of Stone

"The Stoning of St.Stephen" by Jose Clemente Orozco
 As they stoned him, Stephen called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" He fell on his knees and cried aloud, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" and with that he died.  Saul was among those who approved of his execution.                                                              Acts of the Apostles 7:59-8:1

On this feast of St. Stephen, deacon and proto-martyr, I've been pondering this striking interpretation of his death by the Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco.  The artist juxaposes the figure of St.Stephen being stoned to death outside of the walls of Jerusalem, with the figure of Saul observing his death. Stephen and his attackers are unclothed.  His assailants have stripped down so that they can strike him uncumbered by their clothing.  The victim has been stripped of his clothing in order to make him even more defenseless and vunerable.

But the warm skin tones of victim and the angry mob are a sign of their shared humanity, even in a terrible and evil moment.  But what is truly terrifying is the figure of Saul himself, observing the scene unfolding before him.  Orozco has rendered Saul's garments in cold whites and blues; even his skin color is cold and pale.   Unlike the others, he is as motionless as a stone column.  This man, heartlessly looking on with approval is as hard and dangerous as the stones being thrown at Stephen, which is why I think that Orozco has painted Saul's garments the same color as the rocks the mob are wielding.

The Church Father, Fulgentius of Ruspe, in the second reading of the Office of Readings for this feast day, speaks of Stephen as a 'brave soldier who died in the service of his king' but points out that he serves the King of Love, whose only weapons are mercy and forgiveness.  The witness of Stephen, even to the shedding of his own blood, was to that divine love which prays for and forgives even enemies.

Thus, Fulgentius urges us to rejoice that St. Stephen and St. Paul (whose stony heart was shattered and made anew on the road to Damascus), are now friends and brothers in God's heavenly kingdom.

May our celebration of the birth of Jesus, through the prayers of St. Stephen warm our hearts and banish from them forever our icy judgment and condemnation of each other.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Nothing Is Impossible for God

The Nativity of Christ by Duccio (detai

Christ is Born! Glorify Him! 

For a number of years in the late 1970's I visited a young man named Chol Soo Lee* who was on Death Row at San Quentin penitentiary in California.  Because he was a condemned prisoner, he wasn't allowed to have physical contact with anyone. Instead, in handcuffs and chains,he was brought,into a cell with a thick glass window, where we talked over the phone for an hour (the limit of the visit.)  

One visit was particularly memorable, when I went to see him on Christmas.  After telling me he was glad that I had come to visit him, he told me that Christmas was a sad day, even for the prisoners who had visitors, because it was a reminder of their separation from their families.  But it was saddest for the prisoners whose families were unable to visit them.  

And then he said that even those prisoners who, due to circumstances were alone on Christmas, were fortunate compared to the inmates who were such bad men, who had committed such heinous crimes, that no-one could possibly care about them, love them and want to visit them.    

I've thought about what he said often over the past forty years, and I think that the birth of Jesus is both the sign and the promise that God's love encompasses every person, even those who are humanly impossible to love, people that no-one would ever want to love, like those inmates Chol Soo told me about.

But isn't that, at the deepest level, the reason we celebrate Christmas?  That in the person of Jesus, the Word of God, which is mercy, was born to be with and love and save every man and woman, even, (or perhaps especially) the most hateful, unloveable, and lost among us.  

For nothing is impossible for God. 

*Chol Soo Lee was granted a retrial and acquitted in 1982.  http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Chol-Soo-Lee-famed-for-murder-conviction-and-5963898.php

Thursday, December 22, 2016

To Foil Thy Foes With Joy

Detail of Serbian fresco of the Nativity of Jesus from Kosovo

In just a few more days we, in the West will be celebrating the birth of our Savior at Christmas.  One of the things I love to do during the Christmas season is to listen to Benjamin Britten's 'A Ceremony of Carols'. He composed it in 1942, during the darkest year of World War II, while he was crossing the Atlantic from the United States to England.   

My favorite movement in the entire piece is based on the fifth stanza from the poem "New Heaven, New War" by 16th century the Jesuit saint and martyr, Fr.Robert Southwell. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BTyIP7m8Btg

These are the concluding stanzas of the poem:


This little babe, a few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan's fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake,
For in this weak, unarmed wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.


With tears he fights and wins the field;
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns cold and need,
And feeble flesh his warrior's stead.


His camp is pitched in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall,
His crib his trench, hay stalks his stakes,
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels' trumps alarum sound. 


My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward,
This little babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil they foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly boy.

Jesus was born into our world, not armed with the power to coerce and compel our obedience.  Rather, he came to us disarmed, wielding only the weapons of mercy and love, forgiveness and reconciliation, communion and peace.
As our world reckons power, Jesus had none to speak of.  Yet he overcame the power of sin in our lives and in our world with a different and deeper kind of power, the power of God’s unconditional, self-giving love and the inner transformation that love makes possible.

The  Russian Orthodox bishop, Anthony Bloom, wrote that those whose love is not defeated by suffering acquire the only power that matters: the unconditional power of forgiving those
who inflicted  suffering on them. 

This is the authentic power revealed to us in this tiny baby whose birth we celebrate.

Come, Lord Jesus!

Monday, December 19, 2016

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel


In the Western Church we began singing the O antiphons last evening as the antiphon before and after the Magnificat.  Tonight we sang: O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law.  Come and with outstretched arm redeem us.

.I had hoped to have finished this little Jesse Tree (which in the bottom left corner shows Moses and the Burning Bush) by the Fourth Sunday of Advent, but I completed it on the Fouth Sunday, which was just in time to look at it while praying tonight's antiphon.

 As always, praying with these images during Advent has given me it me much to ponder.  As we approach Christmas  I'm grateful to have brought this little Jesse Tree to completion.  A good project for this short season, since it is egg tempera on paper, which is much more quickly painted(at least for me) than an icon on a gessoed wooden panel.   

(Detail of the center image of the Mother of God and Jesus)

Friday, December 16, 2016

The God Who Suffers With Us

The inexplicable mystery of God, revealed in Jesus, is of a God who bears our burdens, laments our sorrows, who suffers with us, living and dying in silent solidarity with the poor and the powerless, with a love that is stronger than death itself.  

Confronted with the merciless violence and hatred of this world, His only weapon is mercy, kindness, friendship, forgiveness and sacrificial love.  He invites us to live and to be like Him, as best we can given our frailties, failures and fears.  

What we celebrate in just a few more days at Christmas is that He chose to be born as a child as vulnerable and needy and defenseless as these children evacuated from Aleppo earlier this week.  It is in their need and that of the millions of refugees who have fled this or so many other wars that we must seek Him, bind His wounds, comfort and console Him, welcome Him and give Him shelter.   

Despite the past six years of civil war in Syria and the pitiless destruction of Aleppo, I continue to believe that the merciful, meek, persecuted and peacemakers are truly blessed.   Despite the cynical triumph of the power of depraved and relentless violence this week, I believe that darkness will not have the last word, in our world, in that tortured country, in our hearts, now or in the future. 

Come, Lord Jesus. 


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

With Longing for the Coming of God's Kingdom

I'm continuing to make progress on this little Advent Jesse Tree, which (hopefully) I'll be able to complete on Saturday in time for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  It has been a fruitful exercise to meditate on the four scenes from the Old Testament in each corner of the image and the center image of the Mother of God and Jesus from the New Testament.

I pray best, I've learned over the years, with a brush or a pencil in hand, and this Advent is no exception.  The selection of these four scenes from the Old Testament are quite traditional and were understood, in the medieval approach to the exegesis of scripture, to be types or pre-figurements of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Which all might seem so far removed from the desperate plight of so many brothers and sisters in our world during these days of Advent. But each of these scenes are of deliverance and salvation: Daniel, in the perilous darkness of the lion's den.  The three holy youths cast into the fiery furnace.  The Lord telling Moses that God has heard the cries of the Hebrews in bondage in Egypt; and the promise of the Lord to Gideon to break the yoke of Midian, who for seven years plundered and ravaged the Israelites after they entered the Promised Land.

It is in that context, of our need for deliverance and our longing for coming of God's kingdom of justice, mercy, righteousness and peace, that we turn our eyes in expectation and hope to the holy Mother of God, Mary and her son, Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

With longing for the coming of God's kingdom, may we continue to persevere in interceding in every way for all those crying out in need during these days: for the people of Aleppo, Syria and Iraq; for persecuted Christians and all those who reviled and hated for who they are, what they look like or who they worship; for refugees and migrants in their distress and great need, and for our threatened environment and all of creatures, so wonderously made by the Creator, who inhabit it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Be Watchful! Be Alert!

Bishop Edward Burns, Deacon Vincent Hansen and server Shannon Olmstead
 The bishop of my diocese, Edward J. Burns.  It was announced this morning that the Holy Father has selected him to be the new bishop of the Diocese of Dallas, Texas.

I suppose its particularly appropriate that this happen during Advent.  Jesus, who told his disciples, "Be watchful! Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come!"  He was speaking about the coming of the Son of Man at the end of time, when all will be all in Christ, but I suppose this could be applied to our news too.

And at some day and time that we do not yet know, Pope Francis will be sending a new bishop to our little corner of the universal Church in Southeast Alaska.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Blessed Are the Merciful

Coptic Fresco of Christ Pantocrator, Monastery of St. Anthony, Egypt
There has been another attack against Coptic Orthodox worshippers in Cairo, in the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul adjoining the main cathedral and seat of the Coptic Orthodox patriarch, Tawadros II. Coptic Christians make up an estimated 10-13% of Muslim majority Egypt's population of 82 million souls and are the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Although Coptic Christians are understandably angry about the failure of the government and security forces to adequately protect them from violent attacks and the ongoing discrimination they face, what is striking is that there have not been reprisals by Christians against their Muslim neighbors.  Not in 2011 when the cathedral in Alexandria was attacked, not in 2013 when Coptic churches and neighborhoods were burned by angry mobs after the coup that removed President Morsi from office and not in the aftermath of this deadly suicide bombing that killed 24 worshippers at the Divine Liturgy, mostly women and children.

In the face of such terrible provocation, these Egyptian Christians are adhering to the teaching of Jesus: to love your enemies, to do good to those who hate you, to imitate Christ's own example on the cross when he forgave his tormenters. They confess Jesus, including his non-violent love, even for enemies, during this terrible time of persecution and fear.

Let us pray for their perseverance in the way of Christ and his gospel.  Let us commend ourselves to the holy prayers of the clergy and faithful of this martyr Church, to intercede for us so that we might not be mastered by our own fears and anxieties in these uncertain and unsettled days in our own country.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

St.Nicholas, Pray for Us!

Today is the feast of St.Nicholas the Wonderworker.  Many places, people and professions have taken him as their patron.  He is the patron saint of my own state of Alaska and of Russia; of fishermen and women and of children. It is the feast day St.Nicholas Orthodox Church, our neighbors in downtown Juneau.  May you have the joy of the feast!

On his feast day in many countries, parents give gifts to their children on his feast day in remembrance of how he saved the three daughters of a poor man from being sold into slavery to pay off his debts by giving them each a bag of gold.  

I think of St. Nicholas as the patron of modern day slaves, those who are trafficked around the world.  Many of them, like the girls saved by St. Nicholas are trafficked because of poverty and indebtedness.  Catholic Relief Services has made working to end trafficking, as well as climate change and the Syrian refugee crisis, one of the three top priorities of its program work in 2016/2017.  To learn more about trafficking and efforts to end it, go to www.crs.org. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Lord Jesus, Help Me to Bring Your Peace to the World

The children's offering of light and prayer for peace in Aleppo and throughout Syria.

Last week the  St. Francis of Assisi Catholic parish in Aleppo, Syria, requested that we join them to pray for an end to the Syrian civil war and to the fighting in Aleppo on December 4th and going forward on the first Sunday of each month.   Yesterday, at the family Mass at my parish, the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin in Juneau, Alaska, a representative group of children brought up lighted candles and offered them at the end of the Universal Prayer as a symbol of our desire and prayer for peace in Syria before the icon of Mary, Queen of Peace and her Son, Jesus.  

Then together with the children we recited the Prayer of St.Francis (adapted for children by the Holy Childhood Association of the Pontifical Mission Society) 

Lord Jesus, 
help me to bring
Your peace to the world.

Where children are 
in danger, or in pain,
sad, afraid,
alone or suffering,
through my prayers 
and my sacrifices, 
may they come to know
Your love, hope,
light and joy.


May our longing for the coming of Christ and his Kingdom of peace, justice and reconciliation and our fervent prayer for peace in Aleppo, Syria and throughout the Middle East, bear abundant fruit!    

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Light in the Darkness

Children at St. Francis Catholic Church, Aleppo, Syria, 

During this season of Advent, it is essential to never forget that Jesus, who as a child was so small and vulnerable, utterly powerless in all of the ways that the world judges power and might, is the Light of the world that the darkness can never overcome.  He is the Prince of Peace who has overcome the power of sin and death and darkness forever.  He invites us to be light in the darkness as well.

All of us, men and women and boys and girls, people of faith and people of good will, have an indispensible part in dispelling the darkness. 

A powerful reminder of this is the example of  the Latin-rite Catholic parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Aleppo, Syria which has dedicated their children’s Mass each month to prayer for peace – peace in Aleppo, in Syria and throughout the region.  The children bring up candles at the beginning of Mass and pray together the Prayer of St. Francis.   

Earlier this week the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans, who, among their other responsibilities, oversee the churches and shrines in the Holy Land) invited Catholics and other Christians to follow the example of this parish in Aleppo and pray on the first Sunday of each month for peace, preferably at the children’s Mass (or the mass frequented by the most families with children.)   
At the Cathedral in Juneau, we're taking up this invitation this Sunday at the 11:00am Mass(which is the Mass that most families with children attend).  
Join us if you can!
If that's not possible, please pray the Prayer of St. Francis in union with children and their families, in Aleppo, in Syria and around the world, who long for peace throughout the world and for an end to war, especially in Syria and the Middle East,
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying
that we are born to Eternal Life.

World AIDS Day

Ethiopian Icon of St. George

Today is World AIDS Day, which, since 1988 has been an annual opportunity to remember with love the 35 million people who have died from AIDS or AIDS related illnesses since the beginning of the epidemic. It is also a day to call to mind the estimated 36.7 people around the world (including 1.8 million children), who are living with HIV worldwide. In his message for World AIDS Day, Pope Francis called on people around the world to pray for all those living with HIV and for their families.  He called on Christians and people of good will to work together to promote solidarity with those suffering from HIV and AIDS so that "the poor can benefit from adequate diagnosis and treatment." 

  Due to the development of retro-viral drugs, a diagnosis of HIV is no longer a necessarily terminal diagnosis.  However, only about half of the millions of people living with this illness (particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia) have access in 2016 to life-saving therapies.  

The United Nations, the World Health Organization and many governmental, charitable and grassroots organizations continue to work tirelessly to both prevent the transmission of HIV and  treat those infected with the virus.  In his message, Pope Francis encouraged those efforts, saying, :I appeal to all to act in a responsible way in order to prevent the further spread of this disease."  

Health care in the developing world is one of the top three priorities of Catholic Relief Services, which has been a leader in developing ways with its partners to make retro-viral treatment available to those infected with HIV, especially in Africa.  
This short animation "They Say It Couldn't Be Done" explains how they developed a model for providing retro-viral therapies in Africa, Guyana and Haiti.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3AkvB6Z-GQ

Additional information about the work of CRS with those living with HIV/AIDS can also be found at: http://www.crs.org/our-work-overseas/program-areas/hiv-and-tuberculosis